top of page

Mental Tricks and Oppression

I’m guessing that you’ve heard the ancient Greek aphorism “know thyself.” Socrates expanded on that advice—an unexamined life is not worth living. When asked what had happened to him, Buddha replied, “I am awake.” When we truly know ourselves, we realize that we are both light and darkness. We refer to such awareness as wholeness. Encountering your true self is important; so is reading the signs of the times.

What about the times? We are living under increasing oppression. We, the comfortable, don’t feel this oppression nearly as much as the homeless or working poor. Nonetheless, big money is doing all the talking these days.

Three elements make up the conditions for oppression:

1. The economics of inequality (people being used to make others rich)

2. The politics of oppression (power that impedes access to a reasonable life)

3. An established religion (an interpretation that blesses evil and shuts down dissent)1

If wages have risen 10% in four decades while CEO pay of 350 largest corporations has gone up 312 times, that’s workers at the bottom making others rich (condition 1). Tax cuts for the wealthiest and limiting access to health care speak to the powerful barring access to a reasonable life (condition 2).

Those living the Prosperity Gospel2 or worshipping wealth, who believe they are favored, are doing everything they can to maintain the status quo. It is God’s will that they prosper. End of discussion If you are poor, you have earned God’s disfavor. Prosperity theology has been criticized by leaders from various Christian denominations, including within the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements, who maintain that it is irresponsible, promotes idolatry, andis contrary to scripture. Secular as well as some Christian observers have also criticized prosperity theology as exploitative of the poor.(condition 3).

The real problem of poverty is the poverty of the comfortable. We are comfortable being exceptional when, in fact, we are not. Our faith and our constitution tell us that we are all equal. We often adopt the poverty myths created by the wealthy. Most of us don’t understand the dynamics of poverty or the challenges a specific person faces. We are unaware of our own ignorance and the mental games we may be playing.

Author and journalist Maia Szalavitz asks, “Why do we think poor people are poor because of their own bad choices?” She describes a mental trick called“fundamental attribution error.” We have a tendency to blame the condition of poverty on the characterof the poor while we attribute our own behaviors to circumstances.We blame the character of the poor for their condition while we explain away our mistakes to circumstances beyond our control. The poor are lazy (but I’m industrious). The poor can’t handle money (but I’m responsible). The poor are con artists (but I’m honest). Ending up in a ditch was caused by black ice, not speeding….

Our tendency to simplify complex issues also drives our judgments. Fundamental attribution error and oversimplification encourage us to make false assumptions about the poor.

What can be said about individuals can be said about society as well. Our society claims that the poor are “lazy, can’t budget, waste money and are con artists”—all descriptions of character. With these firmly held beliefs, society has had an abundance of excuses to avoid supporting real solutions to poverty. Mental errors become public policy which keeps people poor. Poverty is not a character problem. Poverty is a societal problem brought about by discriminatory public policy.

1 Jack Jezreel, head of JustFaith, speech at Marywood Dominican Center, Grand Rapids, MI



bottom of page